The sheer enormity of the subject is a little intimidating. You probably could name several thousand characteristics of a “good pilot.” But how do you summarize those attributes in 2,000 words? You can’t. Entire books have been written on the subject; I won’t try to describe those efforts here. Over the years, however, I’ve known or interviewed many folks who I’ve considered indisputably “good,” some with names you’d recognize (Chuck Yeager, Bob Hoover, Patty Wagstaff, Duane Cole, Rod Machado), and many others you probably never heard of. Someone once said (or should have), “You’re always either the beneficiary or the victim of your sources,” and I consider these sources to be impeccable. On reflection, their suggestions often were far from conventional, more typically the result of experience than formal training. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had the benefit of such excellent tutelage. Here are a few of their comments for various levels of flight. Make no mistake—these are only a very small sampling of the procedures practiced by “good” pilots.
With the extraordinary proliferation of GPS, pilots often consider flight planning to be little more than jumping into the airplane, pressing the “Go To” or “Direct” button, entering the destination’s identifier and committing aviation. While it’s true the shortest distance between two points is a great circle (unless you happen to own an earth-boring machine), intelligent planning may demand other considerations. If the terrain below is especially intimidating and you’re flying a piston single, you might consider routing above a major interstate highway, if one is available. If you’re flying over mountains, should you plan to cross the low passes rather than fly direct?
Similarly, pilots tempted to use GPS as the ultimate shortcut should consider restricted airspace. While the GPS probably will warn you of possible incursions, it’s smarter to plan around them in the first place. MOAs also are a factor in flight planning, especially when flying on a weekday. You can fly through them, but you’d be wise to route around them if possible, or at least plan to check on their use before entering.
Too often, it seems pilots consider that only the airplane needs a preflight inspection. All aviators have had preflight procedures drilled into them since their student pilot days, but how many appreciate that the pilot and passengers also need a certain amount of attention?
Pilots should be especially aware of their own physical state, particularly regarding anything that affects the sinuses. A partially blocked sinus can cause a major distraction during descents, and the demands of piloting an airplane should include a minimum of distractions. Hypoglycemia (i.e., low blood sugar) is another major concern for some pilots. I once flew in a new airplane with a check pilot who complained that he really needed to eat something, then proceeded to pass out halfway through the flight. Fortunately, he came around before we landed, I fed him lunch and he was fine. Passengers deserve the same attention. A nervous passenger might best be seated in the copilot’s seat where he or she can watch what the pilot is doing (in turn, the pilot can more easily observe the passenger’s reaction).
Taxi & Run-Up
There’s nothing magical about the taxi process, but some pilots misunderstand the reason for taxiing slowly. In addition to the increased difficulty of controlling a tricycle-gear machine at high speed, such a practice also can result in excessive nose wheel wear and higher brake loads.
When you enter the run-up area, avoid stopping behind any other aircraft that are running up; this will prevent rock dings from their prop blasts. Similarly, be aware of what’s directly behind you. Remember to allow the nose wheel to trail for a second to avoid side loads. This is especially important in twins where most pilots do the run-up with asymmetric power.
Checklists should be every pilot’s constant companion, not simply the province of airline crews. I probably have 2,000 hours in Mooneys of various kinds, and I still pull out the checklist for every flight, just as I would for a corporate jet or twin turboprop. I’m just not smart enough to remember everything I need to do in the cockpit, and a checklist serves as an instant reminder.
Takeoff & Climb
One instructor always used to tell me to apply right rudder for takeoff before introducing full power. This puts you ahead of the torque problem. Better not to swerve in the first place than to have to correct after the fact.
Once the airplane begins to accelerate, and speed passes about 10 to 15 knots, there’s usually little reason to leave the nose gear on the ground, so smart pilots put in back pressure to minimize the rolling friction of the third wheel. One of the worst actions is to press forward, a common mistake some students make in crosswind situations on the premise that holding the nose down improves directional control.
Another common sentiment offered by instructors and experienced pilots was that you should use full power for at least the first 2,000 to 3,000 feet, even if a METO reduction is recommended. The usual METO limitation is five minutes, and that should be enough to provide 2,000 to 3,000 feet of height AGL.
Climb speed is a subject of some debate. The consensus seemed to be that once you’ve cleared all terrain and exceeded 2,000 feet AGL, you’re usually better off climbing at a slight cruise speed rather than Vy. A common suggestion was to try about 10% to 15% above Vy. In many instances, you’ll see almost no loss of climb performance in exchange for better forward speed and slightly reduced total fuel burn.
At the top of climb, remember to close the cowl flaps before you level for cruise, not after. The idea is to keep engine temperatures fairly consistent. If you move cowl flaps to the end of the checklist, the engine will cool during the level-off and acceleration, and then heat back up when the cooling doors close.
Accelerating to cruise is something of an art. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as a “step” (some airplanes, such as Mooneys, seem to realize a temporary benefit from a slight dive back down to cruise height, but the higher speed will eventually bleed back to the same cruise), but you can maximize cruise and efficiency by leaving the power at max or METO until the plane is totally configured and airspeed has peaked.
Excluding winter, when a high cruise altitude may invite icing, higher nearly always will work better. If terrain isn’t a consideration, you probably should fly as high as you can, consistent with oxygen requirements. Whatever your take on the lean-of-peak argument about EGT, remember that you’re leaning to the cylinder that peaks first, not to the one that peaks hottest. If you adjust the mixture to the hottest cylinder, you may be bypassing another jug that’s long past peak and so far on the lean side that it’s on the edge of detonation.
I had the privilege of flying with General Chuck Yeager twice, both times as copilot, and I learned something on both occasions. Yeager was religious in searching for traffic. Perhaps because of his years as a fighter pilot and his excellent eyesight, he could spot traffic long before I could, and I’m 15 years younger. He was trained as a military pilot, so he understood that the smart way to scan was in 30- to 45-degree segments rather than sweeping his eyes across the sky. Yes, he did spot airplanes I never saw.
There are a number of ways to initiate descent, and little consensus on the best way to do it. In turbine equipment, there’s no choice but to make a major power reduction or accept an airspeed well into the barber pole (near red line). Piston airplanes don’t have the same problem, but some piston pilots feel a power reduction is mandatory for descents.
There’s no question that’s an excellent idea if there’s any possibility of encountering rough air, but many experienced pilots feel the more logical approach is to reduce power slightly and push the nose over to allow airspeed to increase by a tenth of cruise IAS. This allows you to recover a portion of the time lost in climb. Also, if high oil temps were causing you to run with cowl flaps partially open at cruise, remember to close them for descent.
I have speed brakes on my airplane, but their use sometimes seems a little counterintuitive. For most pilots, the whole point of flying is to travel fast, so why would you deploy a device specifically designed to slow you down? One reason is to allow the aircraft to decelerate without a power reduction, a key to minimizing shock cooling. They’re simply another tool in a pilot’s bag of tricks.
In The Pattern
Flying the pattern would seem to be relatively cut and dry, but several of my sources disagree. “Too many pilots fly patterns too fast,” said Gary Meermans, a CFIIM and former chief pilot for United Airlines. “There are reasons to fly fast in the pattern—if you’re trying to stay ahead of an airplane that can’t conveniently slow down, for example—but most often, flying fast patterns is just a bad habit.”
Twenty years ago, during a biennial flight review in my Mooney, an instructor suggested I try applying full flaps early on the downwind to lever the nose down and improve the view straight ahead. It works, but I don’t often use that trick unless I need to. He also felt I should fly slightly wider patterns, which provides more room for correction on base and minimizes the need to turn a tight final.
Fellow contributor Budd Davisson is a CFI who does checkouts and teaches basic piloting skills in his two-place Pitts in the Phoenix area. He’s adamant that the Pitts is not a tough airplane to land and that pilots are their own worst enemies when they overcontrol in the pattern. Okay, so a Skyhawk or an Archer isn’t nearly as sensitive on the controls as a Pitts, but the same rule applies. The airplane will do pretty much what you tell it to. Smoothness and consistency in the pattern is one key to a good landing.
During a checkride to fly away with a new Piper Chieftain from the factory in Vero Beach, Fla., I landed normally, exited the runway and, out of the corner of my eye, caught a shake of the check pilot’s head. When we were back on the ramp, I asked him what he was concerned about. After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Well, you were braking right into the high-speed turnoff. You should only brake straight ahead until your speed is below about 10 to 15 knots, then turn. You shouldn’t brake and turn simultaneously at anything over 15 knots.” Good idea.
Taxi In & Shutdown
Once you’re on the ground and off the runway, don’t be too quick to pop open the cowl flaps. If you’re flying a turbo twin, such as a Seneca, 340, 414 or Duke, remember that the whole idea is to maintain engine temperature as consistently as possible. When you power back for the actual landing, the engines will try to cool anyway, so there’s not much reason to increase the rate of cooldown by opening the cowl flaps. Speaking of cooldown, normally aspirated engines need to cool gradually, just as do turbocharged mills. Victor Sloan of Victor Aviation in Palo Alto, Calif., once commented that a one-minute cooldown on the ramp is a good idea for any engine.
Being a good pilot means far more than flying by the numbers and attending to all the obvious limitations. It also means using a combination of intelligence and just plain smarts to fly in the safest manner possible.
Tools to make you an even better pilot
|How prepared are you? The more planning you do on the ground, the safer you’ll be after launching on your next flight. The following are some companies producing products specifically designed to make the job of flying from A to Z, or anywhere in between, easier.
Bernoulli Navigation: This Illinois-based company is the new provider for the Windows-based Destination Direct flight-planning software. Bernoulli acquired Destination Direct in 2007 and provides a variety of features to allow a pilot to customize flight planning, complete with fuel burn, operating costs, and weight and balance. Updates are provided every 56 days. Visit www.bernoullinavigation.com.
Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC): Falls Church, Virginia-based CSC is one of the major consulting and IT businesses offering flight-planning services to the airlines and general aviation. The company serves such major airlines as Air France, Cathay Pacific and Scandinavian Airlines, as well as corporate and GA clients in need of timely flight-planning services. Visit www.csc.com.
Data Transformation Corporation (DTC): Based in the East Coast, DTC is the purveyor of DUAT (Direct User Access Terminal), one of the premier GA information services for the last quarter century. In addition to providing weather information up to and including NEXRAD, DUAT offers preflight route-planning information. Visit www.duat.com.
Flight Prep: This EFB and flight-plan provider offers Golden Eagle software for offline route structures, or pilots can go online and receive the benefits of real-time planning, complete with a full set of WAC, sectional and low-altitude en route charts. The system also has a weight-and-balance program to streamline preflight preparations. Visit www.flightprep.com.
Jeppesen: Based in Englewood, Colo., Jeppesen has long been known as one of the primary sources for IFR charts and services. The company offers a variety of en route charts and approach plates, in addition to flight-planning services worldwide. Visit www.jeppesen.com.
RMS Technology: RMS in Portland, Ore., is the home of Flitesoft, one of the fastest, easiest and least expensive ways to flight plan. Flitesoft automates virtually every flight task, from weather information and briefings to route planning and weight and balance. Visit www.rmstek.com.
Seattle Avionics: This company produces Voyager Flight Software, which is designed to make flight planning nearly automatic. Voyager will play on a variety of aviation computers, allowing the pilot to fly with a nearly paperless cockpit. Visit www.seattleavionics.com.